The New Yorker
An open casting call is rarely as egalitarian and meritocratic as the word “open” implies. Starry-eyed hopefuls are expected to possess some panache and some relevant experience, or to be an undiscovered talent of mythic proportions. But the Brooklyn Academy of Music recently decided to embrace the concept of true amateurism. It put out a call for people who wanted to be beachgoers in the avant-garde climate-crisis opera “Sun & Sea.” The piece was commissioned for the Lithuanian pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, and this would be its American première.
“Job alert,” the notice, posted to BAM’s social-media accounts, read. “No experience necessary. Requirements include: ability to lie on a beach for several hours.” Community members of “any age (at least 12 years old), gender, ability, racial and ethnic background, and body type” were encouraged to apply. More than three hundred did. From there, the “Sun & Sea” team narrowed down the candidates, then conducted two days of video auditions, ultimately selecting around thirty lucky beachgoers.
John Hoobyar, a casting director for the show, recently emphasized the production’s wish to “represent the breadth of all the different kinds of bodies and people that you see at the beach.” He added, “And the diversity of Brooklyn, too.”
On September 15th, the beachgoers prepared for their opening night. More than twenty tons of sand had been dumped onto the floor of the BAM Fisher building; beach balls, bottles of sunscreen, and colorful towels completed the scene. A retiree named Cheryl George (“Just like Boy George,”she said) sat in an off-white beach chair. She wore a one-piece limegreen swimsuit and had electric-blue nails. “I’m a senior and had nothing to do,” she said, explaining her decision to apply.“I’ll try anything once.”George said that her friends had been worried when she’d told them about the role: Did she really want strangers looking at her in a bathing suit? “I was, like, ‘It’s not pornographic!’” she said, with a shrug.
A couple of towels over, Dante Hussein, a college student, chatted with Sonia Ganess, who works in tech and writes.They had struck up a friendship during rehearsals. Hussein’s partner had pushed them to apply after seeing the casting notice on Instagram. “I thought it was a far-fetched idea at first,” Hussein said, with an eye roll. But on reflection the opportunity sounded like an ideal trial run. “I got top surgery a few months ago,” Hussein said, their button-down open.They wanted to emphasize the fun of being at the beach and “feeling comfortable for the first time.”
Lina Lapelytė, one of three creators of the opera, appeared on a staircase above the stage. She had asymmetrical bangs and wore a billowy frock, and was there to critique the previous night’s dress rehearsal.“People were too stiff and, like, too silent,” she told the novice beachgoers. “A lot of you were probably exploring the situation with your eyes and ears rather than with your bodies.” She urged the extras to be more dynamic: Play badminton. Pick up rubbish. Apply sunscreen.
Hoobyar was standing on the sand in a red Speedo.“Beachgoers!”he shouted. “Swimming is in this corner.”He pointed offstage, where a hose was set up to spray extras. He suggested that anyone who felt like being splashed message him on the production’s WhatsApp channel.
In a corner, Debbie Friedman, a former stage manager, took the notes to heart and walked over to a bicycle. “I want to ride this bike!” she murmured, gripping the handlebars.
“Don’t whisper,” Lapelytė continued.“It’s important that you speak aloud. We were missing that yesterday—the soundscape, the buzz of voices.” She added, “You can have conversations with the singers, if you wish. Just don’t bother them when they’re singing.”
When the show started, the classically trained singers keened about the collapse of coral reefs. (“Not a single clima-a-a-atologist predicted a scenario like thi-i-i-is!”) At her spot on the sand, George flipped through a copy of InStyle and napped. Hussein read a Western adventure book. A couple walked a dog along the beach. A few children, wearing masks improvised out of bandannas, ran barefoot.
On the WhatsApp thread, Hoobyar
and his colleagues posted suggestions: “Share your thoughts on the book you are reading this evening?”“Can we have more dog walking actions?”“Would some people volunteer for building some sandcastles?”
More than four hours later, as the opera was nearing its end, Lapelytė sent a final note to the tired beachgoers: “Please make the buzz.”